Travels Through East Vancouver

Archive for June, 2008|Monthly archive page

Militant Mothers of Raymur

In History, Struggle on June 25, 2008 at 1:59 am

In 1990, my parents were looking for a change. We’d just returned from a year in Zimbabwe, and as we returned to Southeast Vancouver mom decided it was time to leave her job with the international social justice wing of the Catholic Church and concentrate on local solidarity. She opted to work in the Downtown Eastside, and she and my dad took up positions at the Downtown Eastside Senior’s Centre. Not prepared to work in that part of town without making it home, the family moved to a run-down 1905 house on East Georgia, directly across the street from Seymour Elementary School.

The history of that house deserves a post of its own. As does Seymour School. For this post however, they simply provide an introduction a historic eastside moment – the struggle and victory of the Militant Mothers of Raymur.

In 1970 a new affordable housing complex was on the horizon for Canada’s poorest neighbourhood. The Raymur Social Housing Project was created just south of Hastings, a few blocks west of Clark Drive. Vancouver’s first residential ‘hood, this was the former site of free speech fights, unemployed workers’ demonstrations, immigrant rights organizing, and anti-immigrant riots. The new project housed a diverse, low-income population, primarily made up of families.

Families mean kids. And while two schools sat within a few blocks walk of Raymur – Strathcona to the west and Seymour to the east – it was into the Seymour district the Raymur kids fell. Only problem being the train tracks that ran between the Raymur Social Housing Project and the school the kids were assigned to.

1970 was still the era of the train in Canada. To this day, trains run through the neighbourhood several times a day, often shutting down traffic for up to 20 minutes as the engines switch from one track to another where the line crosses Venables. But in 1970 there were even more trains. Many more.

Going to school was a short walk. But it also meant dodging some incredibly busy train lines, and despite the fact the city and school board had created the situation, they refused to provide a safe passageway between home and school for these kids. Their mothers wanted an overpass to stop the children from clambering through stopped railway cars in order to make it to school on time. The city delayed and stalled and delayed some more. The mothers went to the railroad companies. They got no meaningful response at all. The mothers got more organized.

Phone calls, petitions, speeches to council and actions at City Hall – nothing got any movement out of the city who sent the kids across the tracks to school or the companies whose trains hurtled through this residential neighbourhood. For of course these were just poor families. And to help them would cost money that no one wanted to spend.

And so government inaction was met with direct action. On January 6, 1971, the mothers of the Raymur Social Housing Project were good and pissed off. With signs reading, “Children vs. Profit” and “Petitions Don’t Work”, they moved to shut down the railroad themselves. 25 women blocked the tracks. They sat together in the path of the engines, and would not move. Well, didn’t take many hours of lost shipments to get the corporate execs interested. Didn’t take long after that before the city responded, too.

The railway companies agreed to alter schedules, restricting train traffic during the times school kids would most likely be crossing. The city agreed to build the overpass.

One day. One direct action. After months of fighting, that’s all it took.

Now, these Raymur moms weren’t stupid. They knew only too well how easy it is to make promises, and that poor families are a pretty low priority for the folks at City Hall and the transportation companies. So they kept it up, occupying the tracks periodically until construction of the overpass actually began in March of that year. By the beginning of the next school year in 1971, the Strathcona pedestrian overpass was built, linking the Raymur Social Housing Project with Seymour Elementary School.

Twenty years later it was still the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. Twenty years later the Raymur project still stood, its kids still enrolled at Seymour. Every day a steady stream of them tramping morning and afternoon up the metal stairs of the overpass, between its chain-link walls, and down the other side to the little cul de sac across from the schoolyard. Twenty years later, when my family moved onto that part of East Georgia, amidst the used condoms and needles and beer cans and broken glass, one of the first stories I heard was the story of the overpass and the militant moms who made it happen.

Some of those women still live in the neighbourhood. Some of those women still struggle and protest and fight for affordable housing and safety. And all of those women remain a vibrant part of its history, a cornerstone of community-building, and a reminder of what a little courage and direct action can accomplish.

Take a walk over the overpass, starting at Seymour School. Pause at the top and look down on the tracks – not as busy now, but still slicing through the ‘hood, marking this mix of residence and industry where Vancouver started. Head down the steps and carrry on west, through the housing projects and towards Chinatown. At the corner of Cambell and Keefer you’ll find a mosaic in the sidewalk, a tribute to the mothers and their struggle. Stop a moment. Study it. It may be overshadowed by the new condos going up. It may be scuffed and dirty. It may be partially hidden beneath a discarded newspaper.

But this is our East Van to remember.


Nick’s Spaghetti House

In East Van Institutions, Food on June 15, 2008 at 2:33 pm

1956. That’s the year Kruschev denounced Stalin while Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, ending any possibility of an autonomous socialism in Hungary. That’s the year Elvis recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” and Little Richard released “Tutti Frutti”. That’s the year Egypt re-claimed the Suez Canal and Israel seized Gaza. That’s the year “The Price Is Right” debuted and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregation on public buses. And that’s the year Nick and Pauline Felicella opened Nick’s Spaghetti House at 631 Commercial Drive.

52 years.That’s a long fucking time for two people to keep a place like this. And it’s famous in this neighbourhood. So we’re here to check it out and write it up.

Walk in the door and your eyes immediately hit upon a landscape of Venice painted below two archways. OK. Not a-typical. A moment later, however, you realize that plastered around and atop this scene are dozens of pictures of….horse-racing. It’s a veritable shrine to the race-track. Hmmm. Yup. Definitely east side.

Megan came in here a couple of times some ten or so years ago, but has no strong recollections of it all. I was here only once, around the same time. Doug Henwood, who publishes the Left Business Obverver out of New York. was in town to give a talk at the Maritime Labour Centre. I went down and ended up after the event at Nick’s with Doug and an assortment of older radical men. Heading in, they all raved about the place – not about the food, particularly, but the place. It’s a night that I remember pretty vividly. Great conversation and debate, lots of fun. But not impressed with the food, and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why this place was so important to these guys.

So, a decade later here we are, Megan and I, wondering the same thing as we walk in. It’s pretty busy for early evening on a Tuesday. Couples, families, a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings, a couple of old-timers and the requisite lone diner reading a paper while he slurps his pasta. Past the venetian-racetrack fusion entranceway, we’re seated at one of many standard restaurant tables, down to the diner-style red-and-white checked tablecloth. It’s 1970s basement decor – low ceilings, faux-leather-sided bar, round globe lights along the walls.

OK. Not getting anything from the atmosphere or decor to justify the fame of this place. But let’s get down to it. Meg opts for spaghetti and mushrooms, me for a ravioli and baby back ribs. We’ll start with a tomato and onion salad to share, and a couple of Moretti beers. Just the basics, exactly what this place has been doing for half a century.

We’re brought a plate of bread. Take a piece, pull off a corner. Ugh. Not fresh, not good. A slather of butter – well, prepackaged margerine, but we won’t quibble – and I lean across to Meg, who’s just taken her first bite. “Butter doesn’t make it any better.” Bread to the side, we’ll just sip our beers and wait. The salad comes – six slightly-less-than-ripe tomato slices, some onions and a basic vinaigrette on top, and parsley. Not fresh parsley, but dried. Hmmm. Is that really necessary? How hard is parsley? Apparently too hard. But we finish the plate, and that’s a step up.

Mains arrive looking like what we’d expect. A plate of spaghetti, covered in lots and lots and lots of mushrooms, most hiding beneath the dollop of tomato and meat sauce that tops it off. A plate of ravioli and a half-rack of ribs on the side. It’s food. Not good food, but we can eat it. Bad quality ribs are usually drenched in sweet barbecue sauce. Here there’s almost no sauce, and I find myself pining for countless other less-than-stellar spaghetti houses I’ve visited. Nick’s pastas, we decide, are what chef-boy-ar-dee probably looks like before it’s stuffed into the can. Bland.

Fair enough. There’s a place for cheap pasta in this world, and both of us know and appreciate that. But funny thing is, this place isn’t cheap. We’re paying around $15 a meal here, and with the salad and two Moretti apiece it’s a $70 tab. Now we’re really not impressed. Not only can this place not keep up with the similar-looking joints that are sprinkled generously around the city, but they’re charging us substantially more, too.

So that question nags. Why? Why the fame of this place? And why is it still so busy?

Not the food.

Not the prices.

Not the decor.

Location? Walk up five blocks, and you’ll find a row of Italian restaurants charging only a few more dollars a plate, and with some really great food. Not location.

We’ve spoken to a number of people who have eaten here, and can’t really find an answer. Nick’s, it seems, is one of those spots that people keep going to simply because it’s always been there. People go to Nick’s because when you’re casting about for somewhere to grab a bite, the name springs to mind just because it is part of the collective consciousness of this neighbourhood.

History counts. Whether an idea, a practice, a form of government, or a little spaghetti restaurant – when something stays around for a while, it becomes a normalized part of the landscape, a part of the culture. Indeed, that’s exactly why we came in here. Think ‘East Van institutions’ and we both jump immediately to Nick’s Spaghetti House. We’ve both eaten here, but neither of us thinks to remember just how bad the food was. Instead, it’s “O yeah, Nick’s, pretty standard cheap food, and an important part of this neighbourhood.” The history has a life of its own, and sustains the place despite all kinds of reasons it really shouldn’t still be here.

So where does this leave us, post-meal-at-Nick’s? Well, we’re glad that a place that’s been around so long is still surviving. We’re glad that the new Yuppie eateries haven’t killed absolutely everything on the Eastside. We’re glad that Nick and Pauline have lasted so long. We’re glad that people in this neighbourhood have a sense of history, and still go to a place just because it belongs here, just because it matters to this community, just because small family shops are worth supporting, just because they want this little piece of our history to last a bit longer yet.

That’s all good stuff. For all those reasons, Nick’s is a nice place to have around. But we wouldn’t want to eat there.


In Blog Notes on June 5, 2008 at 5:24 pm

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News: Lafarge Canada & Hastings Park

In Local News on June 4, 2008 at 6:28 pm

On top of the original pieces about East Van that will appear here regularly, we have also decided to include regular links to mainstream news stories about our community. This week’s stories striking me as worth comment are:

Lafarge reworks plans for waterfront plant: It would be pretty easy to have missed the fact that after years of legal wranging Lafarge has finally won in the battle to erect a concrete plant near Brighton Park. Somehow, despite the fact this development has been a major site of community opposition going back ten years resulting in a court case that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, there has been relatively little reporting on the development application currently under way. Interesting that new air quality regulations coming into place (that wouldn’t have been considerations 5 years ago) will affect the new development which is a win inside a loss. If Lafarge had been allowed to go ahead when it first made the proposal, they wouldn’t have been subject to the more stringent air quality rules for Vancouver’s port area – so at least some of the community concerns might get met with the new design. Maybe. I suspect this will continue to be a site of some controversy – it’s pretty bad form that Lafarge didn’t redesign for air quality upon the community’s request in the first place.

In the same part of town, the Hastings Park redevelopment plans have been shelved for another four years, much to the disappointment of the community involved in the review process.

Put these two stories together and what you get is a consistent theme in our part of the city: Industry first, access to green space second. This was a major message in the fight against Lafarge in the early 2000s, that East Side residents are tired of being the industrial dumping ground of Vancouver and want more focused development of green spaces and access to them. While industrial use of the neighbourhood is a given due to our proximity to the Vancouver port, it would be nice to see green space “offsets” to the additional industrial pollutants east side residents are subject to.